Language is always changing. No one knows where it is going but the best way to future-cast is to look at the past. John Simpson animates for us a tradition of researching and editing, showing us both the technical lexicography needed to understand a word, and the careful poetry needed to construct its definition. He challenges both the idea that dictionaries are definitive, and the notion that language is falling apart. With a sense of humour, an ability to laugh at bureaucracy and an inclination to question the status quo, John Simpson gives life to the colourful characters at the OED and to the English language itself. He splices his stories with entertaining and erudite diversions into the history and origin of words such as 'kangaroo', 'hot-dog' , 'pommie', 'bicycle' , not ignoring those swearwords often classed as 'Anglo-Saxon' ! The book will speak to anyone who uses a dictionary, 'word people' , history lovers, students and parents.
The author was Chief Editor of the OED and worked on the Dictionary for 37 years.
Inviting, adj., is given two senses by the OED: that which invites or gives invitation, and attractive, alluring, or tempting. Although this superb memoir is not likely to lead you into temptation, it otherwise fits the definition very well. Simpson was a key figure on the editorial team that rescued the OED from obsolescence and ensured its ongoing relevance. They took on the considerable job of bringing the OED online and of adapting it in other ways that have transformed it from a historical monument into an indispensable record of our living language. In similar fashion, this funny, insightful, and really just wonderful book renders Simpson's own past accessible, engaging, and germane. Part social history, part dictionary history, and part personal history-with beguiling etymologies interwoven throughout (computer, deadline, skanking)-The Word Detective will appeal to any reader curious about the English language and how it evolves. Simpson is the perfect guide to the OED. I adored this book — Alena Graedon, author of The Word Exchange
There is a poignant and unanticipated counterpoint to John Simpson's fine memoir of his time at the OED-for while his majestic dictionary was during his tenure undergoing changes of the profoundest kind, he and his family were dealing with a personal challenge that places all his lexicographic achievements in the most human of contexts. This is a wonderful book, then-but on two levels, both equally revealing, intimate and true — Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman
A perfect title. According to the OED, a Sherlock is someone "who investigates mysteries or shows great perceptiveness". This aptly summarizes Sherlock Simpson, who tells the inside story of how that great dictionary has come to be written, illustrated by illuminating and sometimes daring word histories, and grounded in an engaging and moving autobiography. Anyone fascinated by words and their history will love it — David Crystal
People think of dictionaries as oracles that channel eternal verities about The Language. In fact they are the handiwork of mortals who deliberate about how to make sense of the creative brainchildren and viral fads of hundreds of millions of wordsmiths. The Word Detective is a delightful and revealing look at the human side of dictionaries, with insights galore about the nature of language. (And why does the adjective galore come after the noun?) — Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct
Vibrant and inspiring — Publishers Weekly
Simpson's memoir features entertaining, culturally revealing stories of many curious words, phrases, and roots — Booklist
Simpson, writing with a wry and often self-deprecating wit and an obvious passion for his subject, tells a story that is at once deeply personal and part of the larger story of a fundamental shift in how we share information — Maximum Shelf
I found this book surprisingly moving. John Simpson's quiet devotion to his daily task, handling words with calmness and devotion, even love, is an inspiration — Roger Lewis, Mail on Sunday
A charmingly full, frank and humorous account of a career dedicated to rigorous lexicographic rectitude . . . [Simpson] is an absolute hero — Lynne Truss, International New York Times
A compelling tribute to the wonder of language — Anita Sethi, Guardian
Poignant . . . a sustained and sincere reflection on what it means to make a dictionary - the toil, the puzzles, the costs and the profits — Henry Hitchings, Guardian
This elegantly crafted volume will surely provide greater entertainment than a few more famous memoirists this autumn — Marcus Berkmann, Daily Mail